Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Wubi Netbook

I'd sort of been wanting a netbook for a while.

These dinky little toys will leave some disappointed who are looking for a cheap general purpose laptop. Understanding the design focus is on portability and battery life is key.

After shopping around, I finally took the plunge and got an Acer Aspire. It had a new-ish processor (the Atom N450), a 6-cell battery, 1 GB RAM (expandable to 2 GB by swapping the chip) and a 160 GB hard drive.

As with many netbooks, it came equipped with Windows 7 Starter Edition, a stripped down version for the modestly powered machines. 1 GB occasionally leaves it gasping for air. I'd made up my mind to dual boot to Linux before I'd even decided on a machine.

Enter Wubi.

Wubi (Windows UBuntu Installer) lets you install Ubuntu Linux using a Windows-based installer. No repartitioning, no finding an external CD/DVD drive, no blowing away Windows. Download the installer in Windows, run it, choose the edition you want to install and sit back and wait.

The installer creates a pseudo filesystem inside Windows, then downloads an iso image using Bit Torrent, and installs using the downloaded image. The process (depending on your connection speed) takes a little under a hour. If you have a iso image in the same directory as Wubi, it will use that to install (with a caveat -- more on that later).

Being a KDE man, I started off with Kubuntu Netbook Edition. I downloaded the latest iso (10.04.1) and hit the Wubi install button. You can create an installation of from 17 to 30 GB. Since I was using a pre-downloaded image things went along at a pretty rapid clip.

The interface was designed for the smaller screen of the netbook. Everything seemed to work well except for ... the WiFi connection. I could not get that sumbitch to connect. The wired connection worked perfectly.

After an extended period of non-success, I noticed my Googling results had several comments to the effect that Wifi  on the Acer worked well with the Gnome Netbook edition but there was something busted about Kubuntu. I did what any self-respecting geek would have done after 12 hours: I bailed.

In attempting to install Ubuntu Netbook edition I encountered a 2nd gotcha which caused a number of failed install attempts: the version of Wubi used must match the release of Ubuntu you are attempting to install. If your downloaded iso doesn't match the version of Wubi used to install, it will attempt to bit torrent the correct version. In my case, I was using Wubi 10.04.1 with Ubuntu 10.04 (no final .1), which caused it to endlessly download Ubuntu 10.04.1 -- which did not exist. Those point releases count.

If I were picky I'd say the Wubi people should make this subtle fact a little more apparent on the website -- as well as include a list of older versions. Once I found a slightly older version on CNET, everything worked perfectly.

Though an avowed KDE man, the Gnome netbook interface works very well with the smaller screen size - so much so that I don't really miss KDE. Performance was much improved over Windows 7 Starter. Once I was connected to the home WiFi network I installed Skype and called the Canadian son.

Other than the minor glitches above, the Wubi experience is a great way to start off with Linux. You can still boot into Windows, and if you decide you want to uninstall it, you do that from Window's Add or Remove Software Control Panel. Using the Windows filesystem is maybe not the best way to set up Linux, but it works and it requires the least amount of screwing with your system.


My Linux Mint said...

Nice write-up. Saved me some work :)
Greetings from

Nick Rowe said...

I tried to install Xubuntu on an older laptop hoping it would run faster than Windows XP. I never got Xubuntu to work. It was just an experiment since I've already replaced the laptop, so I bailed.

My wife has a Dell netbook and it's very nice. However, I tried to connect an external DVD-ROM to it with poor results. The voice and video on the DVD would not synch, apparently because of the slow processor. I returned the DVD-ROM, but we kept the netbook.

I am considering buying either a netbook or an iPad. I have always found it difficult to justify the excess cost of Apples, and this is no exception. I like having the manual keyboard and don't appreciate the cult-like aura of Macs.

Dr Ralph said...

Hi Nick - other than the fact the shiny surface is a fingerprint magnet, I like my Acer Aspire netbook a lot. The acid trip will be its performance on 2 upcoming trips. For business I have a company-issued Dell.

I had an older Dell someone gave me a couple of years back -- Pentium II with 128 M of RAM (it seemed so muscular back in the day) on which I installed Xubuntu -- it strained greatly under the load. I eventually installed some variant called Fluxbuntu which has become a little long in the tooth.

I haven't used it but while researching ran across a reference to "Lubuntu" which is supposed to be geared to older hardware. I may pull out the ancient Dell and give it a shot.

As long as it's not your primary computer a netbook can be a pretty useful adjunct. The iPads look intriguing but Apple is a little too proud of its hardware -- and I'm not a fan of their control freak mindset.

I recently installed Windows 7 on one of my machines and I'm more impressed than I thought I'd be.